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The rich in historical perspective: evidence for preindustrial Europe (ca. 1300–1800)


This article provides an overview of long-term changes in the relative conditions of the rich in preindustrial Europe. It covers four pre-unification Italian states (Sabaudian State, Florentine State, Kingdom of Naples and Republic of Venice) as well as other areas of Europe (Low Countries, Catalonia) during the period 1300–1800. Three different kinds of indicators are measured systematically and combined in the analysis: headcount indexes, the share of the top rich, and richness indexes. Taken together, they suggest that overall, during the entirety of the early modern period the rich tended to become both more prevalent and more distanced from the other strata of society. The only period during which the opposite process took place was the late Middle Ages, following the Black Death epidemic of the mid-fourteenth century. In the period from ca. 1500 to 1800, the prevalence of the rich doubled. In the Sabaudian State, the Florentine State and the Kingdom of Naples, for which reconstructions of regional wealth distributions exist, in about the same period the share of the top 10 % grew from 45–55 to 70–80 %—reaching almost exactly the same level which has recently been suggested as the European average at 1810. Consequently, the time series presented here might be used to add about five centuries of wealth inequality trends to current debates on very long-term changes in the relative position of the rich.

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  2. The “modern” cadastres are characterized by a precise cartographic representation of all parcels of land, while the earlier estimi simply provide a description of goods and an assessment of their value. Generally speaking, the criteria used in compiling the modern cadastres were different from those that had been used for centuries for the estimi, so that they practically interrupt the series. Of the pre-unification Italian states considered here, the first to introduce a modern cadastre was the Sabaudian State, in 1731, although many communities in the area continued for a few decades to renew also their traditional estimi.

  3. Venice, whose citizens paid the “redecima” tribute, is a partial exception.

  4. The Appendix can be downloaded from

  5. In particular: 1. The fact that the entire distributions were almost never published and often only synthetic tables organized per class were published; 2. The fact that, in Italy but not only there, the method of the “data collection for totality” (rilevazione per totalità) was used, which was later widely criticized due to the practical impossibility of actually achieving it to a satisfactory degree. For a discussion of the issue raised by the methods used by the Italian Marxist school of economic history, see Alfani 2014, 63-4. For similar criticism raised against the French grand théses in rural history of the 1950s-1970s, see Boudjaaba 2010, 375-6.

  6. Other Tuscan rural communities (Antella and Santa Maria Impruneta) for which pre-Black Death data are included in the EINITE database are too small to calculate the measures needed in this article – although the impact of the plague on their distribution can be analysed by other methods, and in particular by comparison of Gini indexes and Lorenz curves: see Alfani and Ammannati 2016.

  7. Notice that increasing the wealth of those who are already above the richness line – which is, by definition, set at a higher level than the median – does not affect the median value and consequently does not alter the richness line.

  8. These figures probably under-estimate slightly the real situation, as the capital cities (Turin, Naples and Florence) are not included due to the lack of sources (see Sect. 1, as well a detailed discussion for the Sabaudian State in Alfani 2015 and for the Florentine State in Alfani and Ammannati 2016).


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Correspondence to Guido Alfani.

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Alfani, G. The rich in historical perspective: evidence for preindustrial Europe (ca. 1300–1800). Cliometrica 11, 321–348 (2017).

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  • Economic inequality
  • Wealth concentration
  • Richness
  • Top wealthy
  • Middle ages
  • Early modern period
  • Italy
  • Low Countries
  • Catalonia
  • Black Death
  • Property structures

JEL Classification

  • N300
  • N330
  • N930
  • D310